The Mystery and Magic of a Made-up Word

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I was thrilled to hear that the Providence Journal wanted to publish my piece about wishing for a snowy Super Bowl.

But there was one glitch.

“Muckle?” Ed Achorn asked me on the phone. Ed is the Editorial Pages Editor at the Journal. “It’s not in the dictionary,” he said.

I laughed. I knew “muckle” wasn’t in the dictionary. I had looked it up, too. But that didn’t stop me. In my description of how my friends and I loved to play football in the snow as kids, I had left “muckle” in:

“We would hike up to the fields at La Salle Academy or Mount Pleasant High School, mark the end zones with our coats, and muckle each other until our cheeks and fingers were numb.”

I explained to Ed that “muckle” was the word we used when we really wanted to hammer the guy with the ball. Muckling was tackling and then some. Muckling could land you in the ER.

I offered to re-write the sentence, but Ed had a better idea. He simply referenced in parentheses that “muckle” was a “kid verb denoting violent tackling.” I’m glad he did. The piece had 570 words, but none hit home more than “muckle.”

A retired Providence firefighter emailed me: “Muckle,” he wrote. “When I saw that word, my face broke into a broad smile.” He told me how he had played football in the snow at Neutaconkanut Park in the Silver Lake section of Providence.

Perhaps “muckle” was a local colloquialism, I thought. Then another emailed arrived: “I found myself transported back 45 years to Lindell Lot in St. Louis where there was plenty of mucklin’ going on in the early 70s.”

So muckling wasn’t regional. Turns out it wasn’t exclusive to football, either. A good friend told me how a girl muckled him behind a dumpster when he was in 4th grade. Sounded better than getting muckled on the gridiron.

If “muckle” were in the dictionary, what would its etymology be? Maybe a combination of muscle and tackle. Or mug and tackle. Or mud and knuckle. Or muck and kill. That seems about right, especially in bad weather.

I gave my son, Evan, the backstory on “muckle” before he read the column. He texted me later: “Had you not said that, I would still 100% understand the usage.”

High praise for a word, especially one you won’t find in the dictionary.

With thanks to Ed Achorn of The Providence Journal.

2 Comments

I’m completely astonished that “muckle” is not in the dictionary. How such an important part of my childhood never warranted consideration as an official word is unfathomable . “Muckle the Guy with the Ball” was our 4th grade recess — our first attempt to establish a “pecking order” among elementary school boys. More importantly, it taught many of us how to deal with the immediate realization that we were not going to dominate our peers with our physical abilities. Looking back, the ramifications seem immense. Had someone reflected on the fascinating dynamics of that game sooner, maybe “muckle” would have found its deserving place in the dictionary. Or, as Evan alluded to, such a perfect word deserves, in fact, to be a word. Great blog John.

    Thanks, Dave. Seems like everyone was playing “Muckle the Guy with the Ball” – I heard from someone in St. Louis who, like us, couldn’t believe “muckle” isn’t in the dictionary. Agree with you that many lessons were learned at recess and over at the playground on the court – probably some of the most important ones!

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